NCAA Tournament upset picks: NC State, James Madison look to bust brackets in South Region (2024)

The South Region is where we put conventional wisdom to the test. James Madison is a favorite public upset pick. But is it worth taking the Dukes in your pool? Kentucky is a trendy Final Four choice, but could the Wildcats get tripped up in the first round? Longwood’s mascot has his own phone number. But what will happen if you call?


Below, you’ll find game-by-game analysis of every first-round matchup with Bracket Breaker implications in the South. Check out the links to the three other regions, and we have upset odds for every potential second-round matchup. As a reminder, to qualify as a Bracket Breaker game, opponents need to be separated by at least five seeds (which is why we don’t cover the 8/9 or 7/10 games). Our analysis adjusts teams’ basic strengths according to how closely they statistically resemble favorites and underdogs from past tournaments and, where appropriate, by style matchups. We can’t tell you how to bet — that depends on how richly your pool rewards deep upsets and your risk tolerance. But if you’re interested in how our model works, check out this piece.

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No. 6 Texas Tech Red Raiders vs. No. 11 North Carolina State Wolfpack

Upset Chance: 38.2 percent

Spread:Texas Tech favored by 4.5 points

Back when Texas Tech was still a bubble team, we liked their prospects as a tournament underdog because the Red Raiders were starting to show some of the traits that Grant McCasland had taught at North Texas, including playing at a slow pace and shooting lots of threes. When a high seed starts adopting those habits, we call them a “Gambling Giant.” These teams are above average at offensive rebounding and also work the perimeter, forcing turnovers and suppressing opponents’ long-distance shooting (and typically posting weak defensive rebounding percentages). Nobody plays this style better than Houston, but Texas Tech fits the bill, too, though not as strongly.


Because gambling giants generate so many extra possessions, they are often among the safest favorites in the early rounds of the NCAA Tournament. But this time around, the 11-line is home to a whole batch of squads that are quite strong even though they just managed to sneak into the tournament: New Mexico, North Carolina State and Oregon. The sixth- or seventh-strongest team in the ACC (or second-best in the Mountain West) starts out at a higher level than Duquesne or McNeese. And in this matchup, our model estimates a gap of just 6.5 points per 100 possessions between the Red Raiders and the Wolfpack.

We also want to point out a hidden metric you probably won’t hear about amidst all the other stats flying around as you fill out your brackets. North Carolina State appears to play fairly uptempo — their pace of 68.1 possessions per game ranks 138th in the nation. That number, however, hides an interesting split: The Wolfpack runs fast on offense, with an average possession length (APL) of 17 seconds (ranking 101st). But that’s a privilege they deny opponents, who have an APL a full second longer, ranking 289th. A team that forces a slow APL on defense won’t necessarily generate a lot of turnovers, but they will surely stop foes from getting fast breaks, quick good looks and easy shots. When we bring up this secret skill, it’s usually about deep underdogs who came out of nowhere to post big upsets, like Ohio in 2010 or Marshall in 2018. But the Wolfpack benefit from making opponents slow their roll, too. North Carolina State’s defense hasn’t been great. But while they’re seriously below average in both shooting percentage allowed and defensive rebounding, overall, they give up 101.4 adjusted points per 100 possessions, which ranks 91st in the country.

History, too, says this is a fairly even matchup. The lower seed won four times in the 10 games from past tournaments most similar to Texas Tech-NC State. The list includes some examples we mentioned when analyzing UAB, like Marquette over Syracuse in 2011 and UCLA over SMU in 2015. Xavier’s win over Maryland in 2017 is another interesting analog. These underdogs were big-time programs that were hardly (if at all) worse than their opponents, used everything in their tool kits to keep games close, then hit their threes. Didn’t we just see NC State do just that against Duke and North Carolina?

No. 5 Wisconsin Badgers vs. No. 12 James Madison Dukes

Upset Chance: 24.4 percent

Spread:Wisconsin favored by 5.5 points


We take great pride in projecting upsets. But over the years, we’ve found as much value in telling you which trendy picks to avoid. Two years ago, we pointed out that the hype on South Dakota State to upset Providence was misplaced. Sure enough, the Friars prevailed.

This year, our model has some similar advice for James Madison backers. It’s not that we don’t like the Dukes, but Slingshot gives them only a one-in-four chance of winning. By contrast, the Vegas moneyline of +185 implies about a 35 percent chance of an upset. Plenty of experts have already taken the Dukes in their brackets, so picking Wisconsin could provide unexpected leverage in your pool.

Wisconsin ranks 21st in that component of our model; James Madison is 73rd. (KenPom has Wisconsin 17th and James Madison 59th). Slingshot likes that the Dukes own edges on their opponents in both turnovers and offensive rebounds. And they have some chameleon potential — they only take 38 percent of their shots from 3-point range, but shoot 36.4 percent from deep, so there’s upside available if they increase their volume.

But the Dukes play faster than you want for an underdog (71st in adjusted tempo). And Wisconsin excels at hanging onto the ball and grabbing defensive rebounds, while also posting an above-average offensive rebounding rate. It’s also worth pointing out that while JMU’s 31-3 record is fantastic, the Dukes played a very weak schedule. Other than their season-opening win at Michigan State, the Dukes played only two other games against teams ranked in the top 100 at KenPom. Both were against Appalachian State, and both were losses.

So while James Madison has the chops to pull off the 12/5 upset, it’s not as likely as some may think.

No. 3 Kentucky Wildcats vs. No. 14 Oakland Golden Grizzlies

Upset Chance: 19.1 percent

Spread:Kentucky favored by 13.5 points


The Grizzlies are above average at shooting from inside and outside and offensive rebounding. Best of all, for an underdog, they take more than 40 percent of their shots from behind the arc. But the potential for an upset here is more about how Kentucky doesn’t play like a safe favorite. The Wildcats are high-flying, high-scoring and highly inconsistent. On offense, they are the best 3-point shooting team in the country. However, their mark of 41.2 percent includes three players who get significant minutes, who are over 44 percent, and two who are under 32 percent. They’re mediocre on the offensive boards and weak on the defensive glass. And they are just average defending inside and don’t force turnovers, so their overall defense doesn’t crack the nation’s top 100 in our basic power ratings. Kentucky has lost five games in which they scored 85 or more points, including the spanking Texas A&M gave them in the SEC tournament. That’s a lot of risk for any overdog to carry and feel secure about its chances.

In our spreadsheets’ history, favorites with strong giant tendencies, like dominant offensive rebounding or perimeter defense, were toppled in just 8 percent of 3-14 matchups. But for higher seeds who didn’t carry those traits, such as Kentucky, that proportion jumps to 21 percent. Confirming that diagnosis: Of the 10 most similar games to this contest, two ended in upsets — Lehigh over Duke in 2012, and Richmond over Iowa in 2022. Winthrop’s 2007 upset of Notre Dame is an intriguing comp, too.

Slingshot says Kentucky is more than 20 points per 100 possessions stronger than Oakland. But the Wildcats keep things interesting on an almost possession-by-possession basis. In the early stages of the tournament, invulnerability comes from being boring.

BONUS COVERAGE: 20 years ago this week, Kentucky fell victim to what might be the greatest giant-killing play in tournament history: Facing 9-seed UAB in a second-round matchup, the overall 1-seed Wildcats were on a fast break when Ronell Taylor of the Blazers intercepted a pass and heaved a two-handed full-court pass over his head and behind his back to his twin brother Donell. UAB, which forced turnovers on more than 27 percent of opponent possessions every year from 2003 to 2005, went on to win by 1. And the following season, they became the first team in the modern spreadsheets era (which dates to 1999) to beat tournament opponents seeded at least five seeds higher in back-to-back seasons. All of their telepathic underdog spirit is captured in that one crazy pass, which for some reason now lives on the Internet only on a grainy Swahili-language Facebook page.

No. 4 Duke Blue Devils vs. No. 13 Vermont Catamounts

Upset Chance: 16.7 percent

Spread: Duke favored by 12.5 points

We’ve seen Vermont in March before and have warned that John Becker has built his program as a Schoolyard Bully. They have all the characteristics needed to dominate the America East, but don’t take enough risks to be the type of team that regularly challenges more talented foes. The Catamounts emphasize conservative strategies: They rarely turn the ball over and control the defensive boards. But they rank 304th in the country in forcing turnovers and 345th in offensive rebounding. So, how are they going to create extra possessions against Duke?


The Catamounts shoot many threes — 44 percent of attempts — so they will have to get hot from deep to pull off the upset. But Duke generally does a good job of chasing shooters off the arc. The Blue Devils aren’t expected to have Caleb Foster back from injury, so their depth is shaky, especially in the backcourt. And Kyle Filipowski has been prone to foul trouble. But it will take an outstanding shooting night for Vermont to advance.

NCAA Tournament upset picks: NC State, James Madison look to bust brackets in South Region (1)

Photo of Shaka Smart: Sarah Stier / Getty Images

No. 2 Marquette Golden Eagles vs. No. 15 Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

Upset Chance: 8.8 percent

Spread:Marquette favored by 14.5 points

We haven’t been able to confirm this, but we’ve heard a rumor that someone sent Slingshot on a floppy disk to Steve Lutz and told him to follow the exact opposite of its instructions. The Hilltoppers play at the fastest pace of any D-I program (75.1 possessions per game). They hardly shoot from long range (31 percent of FGA as 3PA, ranking 317th). They throw the ball away on 18.3 percent of possessions (ranking 266th). They also fail to hit the offensive boards (28.5 offensive rebounding percentage, ranking 190th), so their effective field-goal percentage of 51.9 percentage, 110th-best in the country, translates into just 105.6 adjusted points per 100 possessions, which ranks 191st. This underdog is putting rocks in its shoes instead of its slingshot.

Thing is, while it’s hard to see the Hilltoppers playing the role of David, Marquette is more vulnerable than conventional wisdom presumes. For one thing, Tyler Kolek (15 points and 7.6 assists per game) has missed the past six games with an oblique injury. Kolek, an ace playmaker who’s shooting 40 percent on threes and has an uncanny ability to force turnovers without drawing fouls, makes the Golden Eagles go. He’s due back for the tournament, but it’s anyone’s guess whether he will be at full strength or speed. Marquette is also an outstanding shooting team and disruptive on defense, too often, they’re just absent on the boards. The Golden Eagles rank 278th in the country in offensive rebounding percentage, and 269th in defensive rebounding percentage. And their weakness at turning their own missed shots into second chances has already proved costly: Marquette had seven offensive rebounds in losses against Wisconsin and also Creighton and eight in a loss to Providence. That’s a danger sign on the road ahead.

No. 1 Houston Cougars vs. No. 16 Longwood Lancers

Upset Chance: 3.9 percent

Spread:Houston favored by 24.5 points


The 10 games most similar to this one in our model’s database all went to the favorite — by an average of 25.5 points per 100 possessions. So things are looking bleak for the Lancers. On the plus side, Longwood’s mascot, a horse character named “Mr. Elwood,” has his own phone number and email address. So if fans want some company for their misery after a lopsided loss to Houston, perhaps Mr. Elwood will pick up the phone.

Thanks to John Harris, Kevin Hutson and Liz Bouzarth of Furman University for research assistance.

(Photo Illustration: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic; Photo Credit: Adam Ruff / Icon Sportswire via Getty; Greg Fiume / Associated Press)

NCAA Tournament upset picks: NC State, James Madison look to bust brackets in South Region (2024)


What was the big upset in the NCAA Tournament? ›

2023 - #16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson shocks #1 seed Purdue

In 2023, #16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson stunned everyone by defeating #1 seed Purdue, showcasing the unpredictable nature of college basketball tournaments.

How to pick upsets in NCAA Tournament? ›

Simply Upset Strategy

Look for games where you don't think either team will advance to the Sweet 16. Say you really like the 3 seed in a region to make a deep run. This presents the perfect opportunity to gamble on the 11 over the 6. The most important takeaway here is to not overload your bracket with upsets.

Who are the upset picks for the NCAA Tournament 2024? ›

New Mexico, Oregon and James Madison are the most popular upset picks for the 2024 March Madness men's tournament |

Who is favored to win the 2024 NCAA Tournament? ›

UConn opens as an 11-point favorite over the Crimson Tide. Dating back to last year's NCAA Tournament, the Huskies have won their last 10 postseason games by double digits. Purdue is a 9-point favorite over NC State. The updated odds, via SportsLine consensus, can be seen below.

How many upsets in NCAA so far? ›

By this definition, there have been at least 10 upsets in 15 tournaments since the bracket expanded to 64 teams, with a high of 14 upsets (2021 and 2022) and a low of just three (2007).

What are upset points? ›

Upset Bonus Scoring. What is an upset? In this case, it's when any lower seeded teams beats a higher seeded team. You will receive extra points for correctly choosing upsets in the tournament. You will receive traditional points and an upset bonus based on the seed disparity.

How do you score NCAA bracket picks? ›

The most common method is to award 1 point for correct predictions in the first round, 2 in the second round, 4 in the third, 8 in the fourth, 16 in the fifth, and 32 in the sixth and final round. However, you could also go with a point scheme like 1-2-3-4-5-6 to make each round weighted more evenly.

How many first round upsets should you pick? ›

If you want to play it somewhat safe — i.e. "How many upset picks is too few?" — then five to seven is a good number to try to hit. There have only been 12 NCAA tournaments in the last 38 years in which there were fewer than seven upsets in a single NCAA tournament, and only once since 2010.

Has there ever been a final four with no #1 seeds? ›

Since the NCAA Tournament began seeding teams in 1979, four Final Fours haven't included a No. 1 seed: 1980, 2006, 2011, and 2023.

Who are most people picking to win NCAA tournament? ›

The most popular pick (and champion): UConn — 26.09 percent. The Huskies repeated as national champs and became the first title team to be the most-picked BCG champ since Villanova in 2018.

What is a bracket predictor? ›

Bracket Predictor analyzes each matchup, gives you recommended picks one game at a time, and imports your picks directly into ESPN's Tournament Challenge. LEARN MORE.

What time do ESPN brackets lock in 2024? ›

In 2024 the Men's bracket will lock at 12:15p ET on Thu, March 21st. How do I create or join a group? Creating and joining groups is easy! Click on the 'Groups' tab and you'll see buttons to both create new groups and join existing ones.

What are the odds for NC State to win the national championship? ›

Longest Odds to Win Title Entering Final Four Since Tournament Expanded in 1985
2024NC State+1500
2018Loyola Chicago+1300
1999Ohio State+1200
1 more row
Apr 5, 2024

Does NC State stand a chance against Purdue? ›

The Boilermakers are 9-point favorites in the latest Purdue vs. NC State odds via SportsLine consensus, while the over/under for total points scored is 146. Before making any NC State vs. Purdue picks, you need to see the college basketball predictions and betting advice from the SportsLine Projection Model.

What are the odds for the NC State national championship? ›

The NC State Wolfpack's +1600 odds to take home the college basketball national championship rank them third-best among all NCAA squads. As far as bringing home the ACC regular season title, the Wolfpack have +100000 odds.

What team upset Purdue in March Madness? ›

Purdue is back in March Madness with a No. 1 seed after last year's shocking loss to 16-seed Fairleigh Dickinson. Only one team has faced that challenge: Virginia, which followed its 2018 loss to UMBC by winning a title.

Why are there so many upsets in March Madness? ›

The combination of the single-elimination format, parity in college basketball, emotional and psychological factors, three-point shooting, coaching, and the impact of fan support and neutral venues all contribute to the prevalence of upsets in March Madness.

Has a 14 seed ever beaten a 3 seed? ›

In 20 of the 39 years since the tournament field expanded to 64 teams, at least one No. 14 seed has triumphed over a No. 3 seed.

Has there ever been a 16 1 upset in the NCAA tournament? ›

History of 16 vs.

FDU vs. Purdue in 2023 was only the second time the upset has happened. That means 16 seeds have a 1.28 winning percentage against 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament. No game had been decided by one possession since 1996 (Purdue beat Western Carolina, 73-71).


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